Presidents Use Pork Too

Presidents Use Pork Too

Discussions of "pork" typically focus on members of Congress who bring money home to their states and districts. But electoral interests drive presidents, too, to influence the distribution of federal funds. In my new book, Presidential Pork, I explain the extent to which this happens -- and explore the mechanisms through which presidents target funds toward swing states and the advancement of electorally strategic policy goals.

The numbers show definitively that presidents seek to get the most they can out of federal funding allocations. On average, swing states receive 5-7 percent more grants and grant dollars than do non-swing states. In advance of election years, those numbers increase even more. Within agencies where political appointees, rather than careerists, fill many high level positions and in agencies structured in ways that enable presidential influence (non-commission structures), the swing-state advantage can exceed 30 percent.

But how does this happen? The president is a lone individual charged with overseeing a bureaucracy that includes nearly 3 million civilian and 1.5 million military employees. One challenge he faces is getting this burgeoning branch of government to respond in ways that support his electoral (and other) goals.

Does the president’s immediate staff contact distributive agencies and explicitly inform them of presidential preferences in allocations? Do presidents give political actors final decisionmaking authority? Or is the process more subtle and varied, with presidents relying on layers of contacts to diffuse information throughout the bureaucracy? In evaluating presidents' ability to engage in pork-barrel politics, it is vital to understand the mechanisms that facilitate political or electoral control.

Distributors -- executive-branch personnel with direct spending authority -- have a critical role in helping presidents use federal largesse as a campaign tool. Distributors range from grant managers in regional offices of federal agencies to budget managers in Cabinet departments -- and many positions in between. Presidential Pork shows that with a few (predictable) exceptions, namely those involving more insulated, independent agencies, distributors produce policy outcomes that are consistent with the president’s goals.

As might be expected, the president's influence begins with an inner circle of appointed officials. But rather than playing an active and direct role in the daily affairs of agency offices throughout the country, these appointees may use frequent contact to discuss with career-level agency executives the preferences of the administration and the most efficient means of achieving its goals. By constantly relaying information on administration priorities to career executives, appointees can convey the president’s behavioral and policy expectations.

As in any organization, the executive branch's leadership can convey to staff its preferences and in an indirect way drive staff to promote leadership goals. In a federal agency, staff are reminded of whom they serve every time they walk into their office, as pictures of the president and department head are usually prominently displayed. Environmental politicization can be a highly effective means of promoting responsiveness, especially in institutions less likely to be responsive to the president.

Political control and presidential influence exist below the macro level as well. Unlike broad approaches such as politicization and centralization, the mechanisms I identify in Presidential Pork are flexible and can be employed quickly and efficiently, often behind the scenes, away from the prying eyes of Congress and the public. This can include implicit means such as structuring grant criteria in ways that can enhance the likelihood that certain recipients and certain geographic areas will fare better in the process. It can also occur more explicitly by working with applicants in specific states to ensure their proposals are high-quality and on time.

Congress's use of pork is well known and much discussed. But presidents, too, have ways of using taxpayer dollars to their own advantage.

This piece is adapted from Presidential Pork: White House Influence over the Distribution of Federal Grants. John Hudak is a fellow in the Center for Effective Public Management, as well as the managing editor of the FixGov blog, at the Brookings Institution. He holds a Ph.D. in political science from Vanderbilt University.

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